Please do not let the opportunity to register for our March 25 workshop, A New Map: Navigating the Path of Scripture and Sexuality. You can find more information and register here.
As I begin today’s message, I am sitting in the parlor of the St. George House at Windsor Castle. The last two days have been quite interesting. In addition to sitting among buildings, walls, and crypts that are imbued with British royal history, Chris and I have met fascinating people as part of the Faith in Leadership program, which is housed here on the castle’s grounds. The participants are all clergy from the three Abrahamic religions, and all serve in England except for one who is from Singapore. In addition to fascinating presentations from psychologists, peacemakers, film producers, and a brigadier general, we have had many opportunities to discuss our personal experiences of being faith leaders in our cultural and religious contexts. It has been both informative and challenging.
One particular exercise that I appreciated immensely was called Scriptural Reasoning. We read three scriptural texts, one from the Hebrew Bible, one from the New Testament, and one from the Koran. It began with a very brief overview of the context for each text, given by someone from the text’s tradition. Then we broke up into groups and spent an hour reading and discussing the texts together. It was quite structured. A Rabbi read the Hebrew text in Hebrew and a Muslim led us through the discussion of it. A Christian read the New Testament text in Greek and a Jew led the discussion. And a Muslim read the Koran text in Arabic and a Christian led the discussion. We were encouraged to keep out comments within the text itself, although each of us invariably spoke to the extra-biblical commentaries and traditions that shaped how we read the text. It was quite an experience to see, not only the different nuances in the translations that we read, but the different ways that our three faith traditions read texts. A child preparing for bar or bat mitzvah will learn to read Hebrew and many Jewish worship services are let in Hebrew. The Koran is only considered the Koran in Arabic, and a translation is considered a translation of the Koran, not the Koran itself, so scholars and religious Muslims learn Arabic.
The Christian tradition is quite different in that regard. Pastors in the Presbyterian Church are required to study Greek and Hebrew as part of our seminary training, but, frankly, many pastors do not attend to the Greek and Hebrew texts beyond passing their ordination requirements. Even for those of us who do (full disclosure: I work often with Greek New Testament texts, but my Hebrew is practically nil anymore), we do so in a way that is different than Jews or Muslims. Greek was an imperial language, not a sacred or culturally meaningful language. I study Greek texts mostly to prevent me from simply taking the English translation into whatever direction I wish. It is a disciplinary tool of study, not some magical portal to understanding or a way of being a step closer to God. Importantly, on the Day of Pentecost, the Christian message was proclaimed in many languages. In a strange way, no particular language or culture is sacred for us, because every language and every culture can bear the sacred. Many people have tried to make Latin or certain aspects of European culture the “classic” or “standard” of Christian faithfulness, but I would protest that those efforts are unfaithful to the New Testament story.
The relationship between faith and culture is both necessary and complex, so I cannot explore it as much as it deserves right now. But for now, let me express what an honor it has been for Chris and me to be part of this interfaith dialogue, and particularly to be able to express who we are as part of the body called “St. Mark.” We have spoken about our church, our commitments to the environment, to full and meaningful inclusion, to social justice, in ways that were different from the perception that many of our British friends have of churches in the US. So, thank you for being the kind of church that thrives from interfaith dialogue and cultivates a justice-orientation toward the world.
As usual, but especially when abroad, I am honored to be,
Mark of St. Mark